Magicians meet bulldozers in ‘Tomorrow We Disappear’ at Aspen Filmfest

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Acrobat Maya Pawar prepares to walk a tightrope in a scene from "Tomorrow We Disappear." The documentary screens today at Aspen Filmfest.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Tomorrow We Disappear’

When: Tuesday, Sept. 30, 5:30 p.m.

Where: Wheeler Opera House

Tickets: Wheeler box office,

More information:

When the residents of Delhi’s Kathputli artist colony set out to protest the Indian government removing them from their homes, they took to the streets with fire-breathers, snake charmers, magicians, puppeteers, stilt-walkers and acrobats.

Captured in the new documentary, “Tomorrow We Disappear,” which screens today at Aspen Filmfest, the scene is remarkable. It also is remarkably sad to see a massive puppet fighting a government action as a crowd chants, “We are the flying birds! Here today and gone tomorrow!”

The artist colony, situated within a larger slum on government land, is home to some 2,800 families carrying on India’s traditional performing arts. The film picks up after the government has sold their land to developers who plan to build the city’s first skyscraper on the site.

The seed of the story, for its Brooklyn-based co-directors Jimmy Goldblum and Adam Weber, was in Salman Rushdie’s novel, “Midnight’s Children,” which is set, in part, in an Indian magician’s ghetto.

“When I got to that part in the book, I was like, ‘Wow. How did Rushdie come up with this?’” Goldblum said.

He did a Google search and found a Times of India story about the pending destruction of the Kathpuli artist colony and sent it to Weber. They then found a magician who lived there on Facebook and made plans to visit him. They ended up spending the next three years shooting in Kathpuli and making what would become “Tomorrow We Disappear.”

Photojournalists had often made the rounds at the colony, but none had stuck around or delved as deeply as Goldblum and Weber did.

“The barrier was establishing trust beyond just being a tourist and taking pictures, which they’re used to,” Weber said. “We started coming back month after month and then year after year.”

Through the course of the film, community leaders fight developers and among themselves while discussing how they might cope with losing their way of life. Puran Bhatt, a puppeteer, emerges as a lead character. A winner of India’s National Academy Award who has performed around the world, Bhatt reconfigures his stance on the development through the course of the film.

“The point at which it took shape was when our characters began to evolve their perspective,” Goldbulm said. “When a traditional puppeteer who grew up traveling the plains of Rajasthan carrying on a millennia-old tradition, when he starts to think maybe his kids could do something different — that, to us, was an interesting turning point on which a movie can revolve.”

The Indian government provided alternative housing for most of the colony’s residents, but the relocation plan — the film estimates — will leave a quarter of them homeless.

“Those flats aren’t a place for us to live,” Bhatt says of the government-housing units. “They’re a place for us to die.”

While the film depicts a one-of-a-kind culture in a specific place — and a story that is ongoing — “Tomorrow We Disappear” is a universal narrative about identity and how people deal with the inevitability of change. In that way, it strikes some of the same notes as “ThuleTuvalu,” a documentary about two populations soon to be displaced by climate change, which screened Monday at Filmfest.

“What we’re really talking about is this large, unstoppable force of change,” Goldblum said. “That’s present in New York City, in Aspen, in rural China. It’s a global phenomenon.”

As they dug deeper into the story, the co-directors said, they began to think of it as an “asteroid movie.”

“When you have that type of structure, you don’t focus so much on the asteroid,” Goldblum said. “You focus on people and what they’re afraid of and what they’re hopeful for and what they’re trying to hold onto.”

Shot mostly in the colony, where homes are hand built by artists, the film is visually sumptuous. There’s a uniquely rich quality to its light, emerging from the slum’s idiosyncratic construction. The technical challenges in making “Tomorrow We Disappear” were many, the co-directors said. For instance, Weber fell in one of the area’s open sewers — “Those clothes have been burned,” he said — and the many young musicians practicing drums throughout the day made it difficult to capture clean audio.

The film is due to screen at more than 20 festivals this fall as well as India. Goldblum and Weber are in talks with broadcasters and hope to sign a distribution deal by year’s end.

The co-directors will be in attendance for a Q&A with the audience following today’s screening.